The Pete Simpson Forum

A Note From Pete Simpson:

This month we address the issue of Wyoming’s Permanent Mineral Trust Fund – its purpose and its meaning for Wyoming both now and in the future.  Kerry Drake’s column, Sometimes Wyoming needs to spend rather than save, piqued the interest of many – mine included. So, I invited two of the most knowledgeable individuals on this topic I know to contribute their views: State Senator, Charles Scott, of Casper, senior statesman in the Wyoming Legislature and its longest serving member, and Sam Western, author, journalist, lecturer and Adjunct Professor of Economics at the University of Wyoming.

Not surprisingly, they come at the subject from very different perspectives. Senator Scott instructs us on the purposes of the Fund and urges our consideration of its worth as presently administered. Sam Western, on the other hand, questions the state’s management of the Fund and asks whether the present strategy is wise for the long run. That is, of course, what the Forum hopes for – views that can stimulate reasoned debate and discussion. Which of these views accord with your own and what do you see in our future?

— Peter K. Simpson

Take A Risk: How to create a society that matches its scenery

Guest Essay by Samuel Western
— March 25, 2014
Samuel Western
Samuel Western

Every so often we read a book that knocks our socks off. I mean really sends us for a loop. As part of the research for my next book, I read Christopher Alexander’s Timeless Way of Building. I haven’t looked at the world the same since.

Using what might be described as forceful lyricism, Alexander gets us to see that when we think of our ideal house, neighborhood, town, city, state, the question to ask is not what will it look like? Or how will we finance that vision? It’s more fundamental: what will we do there? Or, as Alexander puts it, “We must first recognize that what a town or building is, is governed, above all, by what is happening there.”

I now see Wyoming and its future through this lens. What do we want to happen in this state? What sort of activity? Are we going to pull carbon fuels out of the earth or toil away at some government job? That’s what most Wyomingites do. Is that the future for the next two generations?

Not a thing wrong with either task. However, if we continue on this path, the unprecedented prosperity Wyoming has enjoyed the last 15 years will fade. There’s a dim likelihood for an all-out bust, mind you. America needs energy and, Wyoming, one way or another, will provide.

“Wyoming is America’s monolith of demographic, educational, political, and economic monoculture. Historically, monocultures either collapse when their single economic driver dries up… or they slowly fade.”

Yet Wyoming is America’s monolith of demographic, educational, political, and economic monoculture. Historically, monocultures either collapse when their single economic driver dries up (like cod supplies in Newfoundland or phosphate on Nauru), or they slowly fade, like Scotland (which was so dependent on heavy industry) did after WWI. More importantly the young, creative and educated leave.

Wyoming ranks first in the nation with the percentage of the population over 25 with a high school degree. But we rank 40th in percentage of population over 25 with a college degree or above. We’re overwhelmingly Republican. We’re also 93 percent white and the least economically diverse state in the nation with most our revenue, directly or indirectly, coming from energy.

Feel free to call me naïve — I’ve been called plenty worse — but I’d hope Wyoming could be a center for all sorts of activity. Specifically, I’d like to see a multi-age population who creates a diverse economy that, in turn, helps their communities obtain a comforting degree of financial autonomy from Cheyenne and Washington.

See? You’d think me a little light in the Tony Lamas. I doubt we can create this sort of activity until we do three things:

1. Work on being less politically paternal. All power emanates from Cheyenne. Wyoming is a Dillon’s Rule state. That means that counties and cities only have the powers bequeathed them by the state legislature, including, for example, how much money can be spent on a county commissioner or sheriff’s salary. This micromanaging discourages independent thinking and basic healthy autonomy.

2. Break our economic paternalism. Wyoming is currently a petrolarchy that collects severance taxes on energy then distributes those revenues to cities and counties in an annual paternalistic rain of largess.

And finally …

3. Start introducing creative risk into the Wyoming template. We’re a conservative place so we have to do this incrementally. We can start by dedicating a small percentage of the revenues from our Wyoming Permanent Mineral Trust Fund, funded by energy taxes and currently worth about $6.2 billion, into creative endeavors and research, preferably at the University of Wyoming. The WPMTF is our ace in the hole. To paraphrase Bert the cowardly lion, “What do we got that they (other states) ain’t got?”

Our own private bank.

Currently, interest from our WPMTF goes into that bottomless vault called the General Fund. Last year, the WPMTF earned $366.6 million. But the General Fund is controlled by a legislature fixated on the idea that there’s no such thing as too much money in one’s savings account. Take, say, 2 percent or 3 percent of those earnings, to fund really new ideas. Give oversight to a board with limited terms and hold their feet to the fire. There will be plenty of failures, believe me, but also the affirmation that, funeral by funeral, we can break out of our monoculture.

Those familiar with state finance may roll their eyes and say, oh for crying out loud, we prime the economic pump by sending out billions out to cities, counties, highways and water accounts. Won’t decent infrastructure attract businesses? Probably not.

This isn’t about building; it’s about creating and that’s a messy business. We have such a unique opportunity to make a difference for the next generation. We made progress when the state contributed $20 million towards Cheyenne’s NCAR computer center and the 2014 legislature passed – and Gov. Matt Mead signed – a bill that create a $24 million loan fund for companies looking to expand in the state.

Yet, even with these adjustments, just lift up the carpet and witness what’s happening to our monoculture. Between 2010 and 2012, about half of Wyoming counties had either flat (1 percent or below annual growth) or declining population. For some folks, this decline is reason to celebrate. Yay less people! But reality is disinclined to oblige this idyll. Federal and state appropriations are often based on formula(s) combining population and assessed valuation. The fewer people, the fewer outside (and inside) income streams, usually kicking off a downward cycle. There’s a reason why Hot Springs County is one of Wyoming’s struggling places. It only has 4,800 souls.

For the last 40 years, Wyoming has evolved into a state with little pockets of prosperity in our cities and those counties fortunate enough to have minerals. But, even regions of the state with minerals struggle. Johnson County lost a heart-halting $311 million in assessed valuation from 2012 to 2013. Just remember that in 2000 Johnson County only had an assessed valuation of $50.5 million.

Christopher Alexander’s idea that activity dictates what sort of community you want is akin to the philosophy of an old friend of the West, Wallace Stegner, who famously yearned “to create a society to match its scenery.”

Stegner also wrote that, “towns are like people. Old ones often have character, the new ones are interchangeable.” I don’t think that’s necessarily true. In Wyoming, we can have both, but we’ve got to fund that belief.

— Samuel Western of Sheridan is a university lecturer, poet and U.S. regional correspondent for The Economist. Author: Pushed Off the Mountain Sold Down the River: Wyoming’s Search for Its Soul (2003) and A Random Census of Souls (2009).

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Samuel Western of Sheridan is a university lecturer, poet and U.S. regional correspondent for The Economist. He is the author of Pushed Off the Mountain Sold Down the River: Wyoming’s Search for Its...

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  1. To create new things you need new thinking and a willingness to embrace the new. The forces of attraction will bring in the new, and without those, what remains follows the track of depreciation. I think depreciation happens without renewing efforts toward the future. Keeping things “the same” needs loads of effort and maintenance. Vibrant communities are excited and proud and active about what they care about and invite others in to share. That investment of energy cannot help but produce some change!

  2. I’d be happy to have the option to have something besides a cowboy and bucking horse on my license plate…maybe a nice bull elk or grey wolf or sage grouse. Then I would know Wyoming is at least opening up a little from its medieval cloistered thinking and letting that 21st century sun shine in….

    Then we could gingerly dip our toes in the lagoon where a second 4-year baccalaureate college, an emphasis on in-state value added commodity extraction , a genuine attempt to live up to the State Motto of ” Equality” all around, transparent government and full lobbyist disclosure , a shift to equality in alternative energy incentive away from fossil fuels, and treating knowledge as a value added product to be universally bestowed preK-post 12 —a place where all those things could be found. I do not believe Stetsons or hardhats can expand enough to accomodate new thinking.

  3. I think what all of the brilliant people with all the brilliant ideas lack is an understanding of the one fundamental idea that large swaths of this state are firmly rooted in – they do not want to change! Sure, some of these areas talk a good game, but in reality, some of the smaller rural areas do not want to change, do not want new ideas, new businesses, etc. Mr. Western, I have heard this same old song and dance you outline above for 30 years and while some communities grab the ball and run with it, others are stuck in the same old routine and those communities will slowly die on the vine.

    And to a degree, I can understand where they are coming from. Be careful what you ask for, you might just get it, so don’t ask for it. There is a certain amount of stability, a certain amount of comfort in not having to worry about your community changing or developing too fast. No change is good for some people.

    Prosperity comes to those willing to invest in change, willing to invest in their communities. Some communities choose not to make that investment because they do not want to change.